Originally published in the Jerusalem Post
Top US officials met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday in an effort to jump-start the stalled peace talks, as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton prepared to visit the region.
The Americans are working on a formula that would restart negotiations and lead to the withdrawal of Palestinian unilateral moves at the United Nations in September, an Israeli official said.
It’s not clear if the formula will succeed, the official added.
Acting US Middle East envoy David Hale, along with the White House’s top Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and then traveled to Ramallah, where they spoke with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The American officials are in the region promoting US President Barack Obama’s initiative to base renewed negotiations on the June 4, 1967, lines with agreed land swaps.
Israel has rejected the use of those armistice lines as the basis for talks, saying the borders of a two-state solution should not be predetermined before negotiations begin.
Israel has called for talks to resume without preconditions regarding borders and settlements, while the Palestinians have insisted that negotiations can only move forward if Israel first stops Jewish construction in West Bank settlements and in east Jerusalem.
American and European officials are busy this week working to push both sides to show flexibility in their positions.
Despite differences between Israel and the US on certain aspects of the peace process, Netanyahu told Hale and Ross that his country preferred to have America mediate any negotiations with the Palestinians, senior diplomatic sources said.
Ashton is due to arrive in Israel on Friday after visiting Jordan. She will travel to Egypt on Saturday and return to Israel on Sunday. Ashton is expected to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials while she is here as part a European effort to convince the PA to return to the table.
In the Knesset on Wednesday, visiting European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said he is not opposed to a declaration of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly in September.
“I never said that I or the European Union opposes a unilateral declaration,” Buzek said.
“I said that it is better to negotiate the solution.
It is much better to have a dialogue and understanding.”
The US and Europe want to prevent Palestinian unilateral moves at the UN, because although the US would veto such a measure in the Security Council, the Palestinians could pass a less weighty resolution in the General Assembly.
Israel has therefore focused on gaining the support of the “moral minority,” which includes many Western countries.
Foreign Ministry director-general Rafi Barak held a conference call on Wednesday with Israeli diplomats to receive an update on their efforts to persuade their host countries to oppose Palestinian unilateral moves.
A number of European countries said they would stand with Israel at the UN in September to oppose a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. America and Canada also plan to oppose the move.
The US underscored this point in its talks with Fayad on Wednesday.
Palestinian goals will only be achieved through negotiations with Israel, Hale emphasized to Fayyad.
Netanyahu told Maxime Verhagen, the deputy prime minister of the Netherlands, that unilateral Palestinian statehood would harm the peace process.
“A one-sided UN resolution could push peace away” and “strengthen a maximalist Palestinian position,” Netanyahu said, according to an Israeli official.
He warned that it could prevent the kind of flexibility needed for negotiations. The international community has been very reluctant to tell the Palestinians what they need to do for peace, the prime minister said at the meeting with Verhagen in Jerusalem. It is time that the international community explained to the Palestinians that it must recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and accept that refugees would be returning only to a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said.
At the Knesset on Wednesday, Netanyahu reiterated the six points that Israel believes are necessary for a peace deal.
“The settlement blocs will remain part of Israel in a final-status agreement,” Netanyahu told the Knesset in response to a demand by 40 opposition parliamentarians that he address his diplomatic agenda.
“Jerusalem will remain Israel’s sovereign, united capital,” he added.
The Palestinians would have to recognize that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, and a peace deal would need to meet Israel’s security requirements, including maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu said. The final-status agreement must end all claims against Israel by the Palestinians, he added.
After each point, he asked the audience, “What would you do? Do you agree or disagree?” prompting responses so vocal that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu not to ask questions.
“They don’t seem to understand that you’re asking rhetorically,” Rivlin said.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni responded to Netanyahu’s speech by saying that “already in the present, we know that the prime minister is making a historical mistake.
“We will not forgive a failed government that continues on its path even when the writing is on the wall,” Livni said. “If there won’t be negotiations, decisions will be made for us, and conditions will worsen. If there is no Palestinian state in an agreement with Israel, it will be founded by the world, in opposition to Israel, and will hurt our legitimacy.
If there is no diplomatic agreement, Israel will not be able to maintain its Jewish identity.
Livni said Netanyahu “is giving the Palestinians the power to define us,” and “bringing Israel back to 1947, when there was a debate on how Israel should be defined.
“Netanyahu will not solve the conflict.
Netanyahu just wants to stay in power,” she added. “Netanyahu will isolate Israel.
Netanyahu is leading Israel into the abyss. I will not participate in Netanyahu’s manipulative games.
“History does not remember leaders that do not do anything but say, ‘I’m right,’ and the public does not forgive them,” Livni said.